Universal Design & Whole House Remodel

“Universal Design offers a choice to stay at home. If you are already planning a remodel, I always encourage homeowners to incorporate features that make their home more accessible, be that now or in the future. And it doesn’t have to look like a hospital. We can meld these elements into your home’s aesthetic so that it offers beauty and accessibility in equal measure,” explains Harrell Remodeling Designer, Debra Winston.

Here are key takeaways on how to include Universal Design features in your home on a scale both large and small.

Start at the Street

As you enter and depart, consider the various obstacles for those who may have mobility challenges. Many homes have a step up to the front door and creating a zero-step threshold via an inclined surface is an ideal way to remove this situation. The inclined access can be at a back or side door, can be made from decking, concrete or any other smooth surface. Integrating it into the surrounding landscape as well as the aesthetic of the house itself makes it appear as a purposeful design element.

Consider adding handrails to any exterior stairs, having well illuminated pathways, porches and entryways. A lighted house number is a code requirement but also enables emergency responders to more easily locate your home.

Backyards & Garden Spaces

Garden and yard spaces can be created or modified with Universal Design principles. Remove any tripping hazards such as stepping-stones or uneven surfaces where possible. Porches and decks should be enclosed with railings or large potted plants, both serving as a barrier against falling. If there is more than one step leading to a deck or other outdoor space, add a handrail for safety and accessibility. All hand and guardrails should be 42 inches high. (If the guardrail also serves as a handrail on stairs, it can be at 36 inches high.) The space between vertical railings must be no more than 4 inches wide.

Entryways

Entry doors should be a minimum of 36 inches wide and should have a peephole at an accessible level for all residing within the home. At the point of entry, there should be a beveled transition or low-profile threshold to allow easy passage of wheelchairs and other mobility devices. A bench or landing for placing bags while opening the door also is desirable.

Garages

If the garage is the primary entry point, eliminate clutter to create a clear path to get into and out of a vehicle as well as enter the residence. If the entry into the house from the garage has more than one step, a ramp may be necessary.

The Interior

Multi-Level Homes

Many people have two story houses, which can be made accessible if there is at least one bedroom and a full bath on the main level.

Residences with multiple levels can be made fully accessible by installing a chair lift or an elevator. The opportunity for each is dependent upon the space available and the overall layout of the home. Budget plays a significant part as well.

Chair lifts are the less expensive option and require a landing area at the top and bottom of the stairs for the user to easily enter and exit. Elevators can be installed internally or externally and should be spacious enough to accommodate a person in a wheelchair plus one additional person. During a major remodel, a home can be redesigned with an elevator shaft (hallways and closets are great areas to use) but professional installation of an exterior lift can solve access challenges without “tearing up the house,” Debra explains. Installation should always be performed by a licensed elevator contractor.

Lighting & Electrical

Proper illumination in every room of your home is a key to Universal Design. Task lighting, ambient lighting and dimmable lights that offer visibility at night make a home safer and more navigable. When possible, install light switches, electrical outlets and thermostats at levels accessible to those who are seated.

Flooring

If you plan on replacing flooring in your home, strive for a seamless transition from one space to another. Using the same flooring throughout when possible avoids the need for transition strips, making even inexpensive flooring appear high-end. If this isn’t achievable, thresholds of ½ inch or less create a smoother flow and a reduced tripping hazard. Taping or securing area rugs – or removing them altogether – eliminates tripping hazards.

Hallways & Doors

If you have the opportunity during a remodel, increase the width of hallways and doors. Most interior passageways should be 36 inches wide, but an additional six to 12 inches makes them more maneuverable, comfortable and flexible.

The typical interior door is 32 inches wide with some as narrow as 26 inches. Increasing doorways to 36 inches allows for easy passage, especially for those using mobility devices. If doorways cannot be made wider, there are some opportunities to widen doorways by using specialized offset hinges. These move the door out of the pathway when opened, increasing the passageway by 1-3/4 inch. Installing levered handles allow all doors to be opened and closed by those with limited grip or hand strength.

Bathrooms & Kitchens

Bathrooms with Universal Design elements can ensure homeowners can live comfortably and safely in their own home. For more specifics on integrating elements of Universal Design in bathrooms, refer to our blog on this topic.

As the heart of the home, implementing Universal Design principles in your kitchen also greatly enhances its long-term livability. Learn more about how to merge these elements into your kitchen by reading our Kitchens & Universal Design blog.

Laundry Rooms

Front loading machines set on pedestals provide ideal access while offering additional storage at a low level. Having a rolling laundry basket is also a plus.

Universal Design is a way to make your entire home livable for all stages of life, for people of all abilities and ages. It is a worthwhile investment to incorporate elements of Universal Design. These principles can be implemented all at once during a major remodel, in specific rooms, such as during a kitchen or bath remodel, or anytime you are considering any type of upgrade, including flooring, door hardware or lighting. Explore more about Universal Design on our website.

Founded in 1985 by Iris Harrell and 100% employee-owned, Harrell Remodeling Design+Build has been creating distinctive homes for 35 years. To learn more about Universal Design and how it can make your home more livable for years to come, we invite you to talk with one of our Designers. Feel free to email us or call our Palo Alto office at 650-230-2900 to schedule a meeting to talk more about Universal Design.